Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rawson, William

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RAWSON, Sir WILLIAM (1783–1827), whose name was originally Adams, oculist, youngest son of Henry Adams, was born at Stanbury in the parish of Morwinstow, Cornwall, on 5 Dec. 1783. He was assistant to John Hill, a surgeon at Barnstaple, and about 1805 came to London to complete his education at St. Thomas's and Guy's Hospitals. John Cunningham Saunders, the demonstrator of anatomy at the former hospital, had just founded the London Infirmary in Charterhouse Square for curing diseases of the eye. Adams attended his demonstrations, and assisted him in the surgical operations at the infirmary. In 1807 he was elected M.R.C.S. of London, and shortly afterwards moved to Exeter, where he established, and became surgeon to, the West of England infirmary for curing eye disease on the lines of the institution at which he had been trained. From that date to 1810 he lived for the most part at Exeter and Bath, but he claimed to have operated successfully at Dublin and Edinburgh. In 1810 he returned to London.

At this date Adams, who was full of energy, suggested to Sir David Dundas, the commander-in-chief, the formation of an institution for the exclusive treatment of pensioners dismissed from the army as blind through Egyptian ophthalmia. In 1813 he encouraged the belief that he had discovered a cure for that complaint, but his enemies affirmed that the discovery had been made by Saunders. Several operations were performed by him in the hospital for seamen at Greenwich, and on the question whether they had been efficacious, and on the originality of his treatment, controversy raged for several years. When Haydon injured his eyesight in 1813 through excessive application to work, he was cured by Adams (Haydon, Correspondence, i. 81); but when Wolcot, at the age of nearly eighty, allowed Adams to operate on his worst eye, the effect was to make him ‘worse off than he was before’ (Redding, Past Celebrities, i. 241). Adams was made surgeon and oculist-extraordinary to the prince regent and to the dukes of Kent and Sussex, and on 11 May 1814 he was knighted at Carlton House. An ophthalmic institution was founded for him on 1 Dec. 1817 in part of the York hospital at Chelsea; and when these premises were found inconvenient, he gratuitously attended, from that date to 1821, numerous cases in a building in the Regent's Park which was used as a hospital, but had been originally constructed by him for the purpose of establishing a manufactory for steam guns. A select committee reported on this institution, and on the claims of Adams to public money, and in the end parliament voted him the sum of 4,000l., Lord Palmerston supporting him with great warmth.

Adams and his relatives were largely interested in the Anglo-Mexican mine, and in 1825 he published a pamphlet on its ‘actual state.’ An amusing account of his speculations in such undertakings, as narrated in a stage-coach journey, is given in the ‘Diary’ of Charles Abbot, first baron Colchester (iii. 443–4). The Mexican adventure probably proved a failure, and the last years of Adams's life seem not to have been attended with success. He died at Upper Gloucester Place, Dorset Square, London, on 4 Feb. 1827, and was buried in St. John's Wood cemetery, St. Marylebone parish, on 9 Feb. His wife was Jane Eliza, fourth daughter and coheiress of Colonel George Rawson, M.P. for Armagh. She died in Rome in 1844, and was buried there. They had five children, the eldest of whom is the present Sir Rawson William Rawson. In compliance with the will of the widow of Colonel Rawson, and by royal license, Adams took the name of Rawson on 9 March 1825.

He published 1. ‘Practical Observations on Ectropion or Eversion of the Eyelids,’ 1812. 2. ‘Practical Enquiry into Causes of frequent Failure of the Operation of Depression,’ 1817. 3. ‘Treatise on Artificial Pupil,’ 1819. 4. ‘Present Operations and Future Prospects of the Mexican Mine Association,’ 1825. He contributed on ‘Egyptian Ophthalmia’ to ‘Tilloch's Philosophical Magazine,’ xli. 329–31 (1831), and ‘On the Operation of Cataract’ to the ‘London Medical Repository’ for 1814.

[Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub. ii. 551–553 (for bibliography of writings by him, and relating to him); Gent. Mag. 1827, pt. i. p. 187; Boase's Collectanea Cornub. pp. 789–90.]

W. P. C.